RECENTLY a discussion cropped up about the current pathways to becoming a lawyer in Hong Kong. Some people here just don’t seem to realise the consequences that those pathways entail in time, effort and money.
Someone I know has decided to backtrack and do GCE A-levels after having graduated with a B.A. in English.
My reaction when knowing this was … stunned.
Stunned that there are actually people who would pull a stunt like that beyond all reason and rhyme.
So here’s my answer to that acquaintance of mine who thinks (mistakenly) that doubling back to secondary-school qualifications whilst already holding a first degree could ever be a rational decision.
The General Certificate of Education is the UK’s national secondary-school examinations, split into Ordinary Level (‘O-level’) for junior high school and Advanced Level (‘A-level’) for sixth form (senior high). The GCE O-levels basically run in parallel with the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), which was introduced in 1988.
Introduced in the UK in 1951, the GCE was the only set academic (i.e. non-vocational) school exams for leaving school and for university entry throughout the 1950s to the late 1980s. The GCE became the export version for university entry as it remained popular in many ex-British colonies.
Exam sittings are twice a year (in January and June). There are no compulsory subjects and students choose the subjects they had studied and wish to sit for. However, most will select a fairly standard set of subjects (such as English, Maths, etc) that are generally looked for by employers and for university admission.
The Hong Kong ‘agent’ or franchisee for the GCE is a quango named the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA).
(In Britspeak, a ‘quango’ stands for quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation. A government devolves power to the quango to administrate certain matters then. Legally, a quango is a “non-governmental public body or executive agency.” The HKEAA therefore is a quango.)
GCE exam fees for Hong Kong varies according to subject. Overall, price is from HK$800 to HK$1,200 per examined subject (US$103 to US$155, or £66 to £100) — which is seriously outrageous.
Here’s what’s wrong with my acquaintance
To be perfectly honest, if a person already has a degree, then sitting for the GCE is a pointless exercise in blowing your cash and time on Earth.
To get into law school, it’s far cheaper and less heartache to use the degree and a little low savvy in composing the Personal Statement for the law-school application form.
Yet I find many Hongkongers typically make self-defeating defensive remarks like “I’ve paid for it, so I’ll bear the consequences” — which in regular English would be “I’ve paid for it so I’ll just carry on with it regardless.”
Bear consequences alright. They’re deaf and blind to the longer-range consequences that go beyond mere payment of cash.
Uniqueness of Law
Hitting the nail on the head … nailing the head, more like
Law doesn’t travel. Your knowledge and experience of the laws of one place is non-transferable to another. Do medicine, engineering or something else instead for transferability.
Only from 1971 did Hong Kong started to offer its own LL.B., the law degree.
This comes as a massive surprise to many people. We would think that it would’ve been much earlier than 1971 for a place like Hong Kong — considering the place long operated on English law (heavily adjusted for local conditions). The whys and wherefores of that is another story for another day.
Unlike medicine, engineering, accounting, architecture and umpteen other fields, law is stuck in One Place Hell — lex loci (‘law of the place).
Medicine treats everyone the same way, whether in Paris or Tokyo regardless of the patient being Congolese or Genovese or Chinese.
Engineering builds things the same way whether in Timbuktu or in Duluth, Wisconsin.
Banking and finance can be put to financial rape and pillage in New York City as easily as in Londontown or Hongkongtown.
But not law. The laws of everywhere is different.
We’re seeing a glut of law graduates with practically no prospect of making it to practice in the short to medium term, mainly because the real problem is with the back end of the qualifying pathway.
Several practising lawyers told me the apprenticeships have become near-impossible to get in the last seven or eight years. The situation won’t likely change for the better for several more years.
The apprenticeship finalises the legal training and the final step for licensing. In Hong Kong (just as is in the UK), the apprenticeships are split into two types (because Hong Kong also has a split legal profession).
‘Articles‘ (also called traineeships) are for solicitors (the non-trial lawyers) and ‘pupillage‘ for barristers (the trial advocates). Both last two years. They are compulsory requirements for successful admission as practising lawyers.
In other words, with little or no availability apprenticeships for the foreseeable future, many law graduates will be stuck only with paper qualifications and unable to proceed further.
Like everything in law, it isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
The chart skips one or two whole levels in the whole qualifying process
So why the dearth of legal apprenticeships?
The main reasons in Hong Kong’s case is mostly the same seen worldwide.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
- Rising cost of general employment (7%–15% p.a. for the past 5 years).
- Rising cost of legal employment (10%–15% p.a. for the past 5 years).
- Ever-rising cost of legal malpractice insurancebecause of growing numbers of malpractice suits.
- Enforced redundancies and other cost-cutting measures within the government for legal personnel (e.g. legal aid).
- Inevitably, ever-rising rental costs (effectively 15%-20% p.a. in Hong Kong).
- Rising cost of CPD (continuing professional development) either post-qualification or post-admission (annual percentage rise variable according to specialisation).
The stuff just adds up and eats into the budget for offering traineeship or pupillage to newly qualified candidates.
A ‘subsurface’ reason adding to the problem
Substandard English-language skills translate into extra operating costs.
This is the spearhead of two problems — the other being legal skills.
Practically nobody likes to mention these two in the open. The impact is real enough on the balance sheet on a daily basis. And nobody seems to have any idea how to fix things, other than to rebadge the problem as a ‘feature’ of the Hong Kong legal profession.
“… the big money in Hong Kong is all with the foreign firms. Most legal work in Hong Kong is done in English. The top firms in Hong Kong are all UK and U.S. firms. If you want to work in China, yes, then Chinese language would be an advantage. For Hong Kong, it’s the legal skills you bring that matter most, not whether you can speak Chinese, and for most fields local language is not needed.” — Randy, 14 MAR 2011
“Local language is not needed” is bull’s eye.
Four-fifths of legal work in Hong Kong is still done in English. Yet our law graduates’ overall English-language proficiency and articulacy have been FALLING ever since the 1997 Handover. Our esteemed government denies this point-blank — yet the problem is altogether super bloody painful to watch on an everyday basis by those who work alongside homegrown lawyers.
“Everybody hopes things will get better — but it’s not getting better … because nothing’s been done about it … it’s not in our sphere of concern or influence. But it IS because it’s costing us.” — A senior lawyer
Poor language ability of course is a real problem anywhere, but it’s more problematic in the case of Hong Kong’s locally educated legal eagles.
Fixing language problems costs money — often in the form dragged-out or lost lawsuits, non-billable hours, resubmission costs, re-translation, reinterpretation, re-instruction, re-markup, reproof, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
It all becomes painfully noticeable even to an outsider like me (a printer now) who deals daily with those documents.
An even deeper-seated problem
It goes deeper than mere language repair. It goes to the very heart of the law firm’s bottom line when legal work is still substantially done in English.
Substandard LEGAL skills lead to faulty legal handiwork, which is harder (therefore costlier) to repair because it eats into billable hours.
Everybody knows legal matters are by nature and origin often nebulous, contradictory and counterintuitive with shifting goalposts. Law study materials aren’t nearly as straightforward as those in (say) engineering. Substandard legal skills flows from substandard language ability.
Ultimately, everything adds up to dilute profits at the back end.
One reason many practising lawyers often recount to me about the substandard legal skills among locally trained lawyers is the way Hong Kong trains up law students.
Look at the British and the Americans for a second.
British and especially American law schools are incredibly competitive to get in, and even more competitive to stay in. The entire operating model for law students everywhere is for high speed, high accuracy, high responsiveness, high articulation, and high adherence to rules and hierarchy. It’s just like the medical schools.
In contrast, the average Hong Kong law school is comparatively leisurely in pace and academic in tone — at least in the experience of myself and the lawyers who I run with.
Of course, that’s only a comparative view. Law studies in Hong Kong are still 10 times more dog-eat-dog than practically all other disciplines (except medicine), so it isn’t like I’m trying to give out a warped picture here.
A real back-end problem
The magical date of 30 June 2047 is a real problem that everybody pretends it doesn’t exist.
You see, 30 June 2047 is the expiration date of our Common Law.
On that date, Hong Kong has an appointment to become a fully integrated geopolitical part of the People’s Republic of China, our overlord and motherland.
If the period from the 1997 Handover to today had been cohabitation, then 2047 would be nuptials, marriage, wedding and pregnancy all rolled into one.
And it might end up an abortion too, if we’re unprepared for it (as we still are).
Let’s not get overly melodramatic here. Nowhere is stated that Common Law in Hong Kong will end in 2047. The Sino-British Joint Declaration [19 Dec 1984] does expire in 2047, but the Hong Kong Basic Law  has no expiration date.
The Joint Declaration was only the basis for negotiating the sovereignty transfer. Hong Kong doesn’t run on that but on the Basic Law, and that’s what matters more.
But here’s the problem. China’s official doctrine is the ‘special administrative region’ status lasts for 50 years. That ends in 2047 for Hong Kong. What then?
The super small handful of legal practitioners who do pay even abject attention to the matter blithely contend that nothing untoward is going to happen — it’ll be business as usual.
But the necessary presumption remains. Hong Kong comes fully into the fold of China, and that presumes Common Law could not remain operative then.
I don’t think things will go spick and span in 30 years’ time until and unless we nail down some kind of basic operating plan now for the legal system for that date.
Such a plan isn’t going to material unless some form of contingency thinking is happening right now, never mind discussion. That ‘thinking’ just even isn’t happening.
Not to put too fine a point on things, not thinking about this unthinkable issue means 30 June 2047 might well end up another Surprise Buttplug Party — just like the years leading up to the 1997 Handover — with everyone scrambling to put in panic measures to upkeep the legal system, even if on life support.
That’s scarcely a responsible, adult way of going about things.
Panic measures are often unworkable. We’ve seen literally centuries of this in world history. We’ve seen it again in the economic austerity measures and the anti-illegal immigration actions taking place in the European Union since the global financial crisis in 2008.
I love TV reruns, but not terribly fond of real-life reruns.
To get around these and other ‘local’ problems, many legal hopefuls are taking their lives into their own hands with workarounds — to be explained in Part 2.
© Lipsync Lawyer, 19 Dec 2016. (B16322)
© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2013. (B13129)
Images: Gavel via Wooden Toys UK • GCE Certificate in author’s collection • Barrister’s wig via Weird Universe • Route to Qualification as a Lawyer in HK via University of Hong Kong Law Faculty • Hypodermic needle graphic via Wikimedia.org • This Is Law School via Shit Law Students Say on Twitter • Chinese military show host Yu Jie 俞洁 via China Daily. Featured image courtesy of the Twenty Sixteen theme.
How to cite this article
Lipsync Lawyer. (2016 Dec 19). Special Report: A Slight Lawyering Problem (1/2). Blog post ID B16323. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p8dCZK-7.